Behold! The first post-crash pictures of NASA's DART target asteroid Dimorphos
It really happened.
NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) spacecraft purposefully crashed into an asteroid yesterday, September 27, as part of a planetary defense test aimed at changing the space rock's trajectory.
Next, the astronomical community will observe the aftermath of the Armaggedon-like mission to ascertain whether it was a success.
Thanks to the Italian space agency, we already have some early close-up imagery of the asteroid just after the impact. It has released the first images from its tiny Light Italian Cubesat for Imaging of Asteroids (LICIACube), which hitched a ride alongside DART and captured the stunning final moments.
Close-up images of the DART asteroid crash
The images we saw yesterday (shared below) of Dimorphos getting closer and closer — before impact was confirmed by a red screen — came straight from the DART spacecraft's Didymos Reconnaissance and Asteroid Camera for Optical navigation (DRACO) imager.
Don't want to miss a thing? Watch the final moments from the https://t.co/2qbVMnqQrD— NASA (@NASA) ) September 26, 2022
The LICIACube spacecraft hitched a ride aboard the DART spacecraft for most of the journey to Dimorphos but was deployed shortly before impact. It then started orbiting the Didymos asteroid system and was able to capture images shortly before and after the impact.
It took approximately three hours for those images to be beamed back to Earth some 7 million miles (11 million kilometers) away from the asteroid system.
The LICIACube spacecraft's two cameras picked up images of bright debris surrounding Dimorphos following the collision.
As per Space.com, during a press conference held in Italian on Tuesday, Elisabetta Dotto, science team lead at Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica (INAF), said: "We're really very proud." Dotto further explained that the LICIACube team would be releasing more images over the coming days.
"Dimorphos is completely covered really by this emission of dust and detritus produced by the impact," Dotto continued, adding that scientists weren't sure exactly how Dimorphos would react to the collision and what the aftermath of the impact would look like.
NASA's DART mission was purposefully designed to smash into Dimorphos, which is a smaller asteroid circling a larger one called Didymos. Both together are referred to as the Didymos asteroid system.
Didymos poses no threat to Earth, but crashing a spacecraft into it will allow scientists to determine whether we could do the same in the event of a hypothetical hazardous asteroid headed towards Earth.
What now? Dimorphos is under observation from Earth
Over the next few days and weeks, scientists will determine whether the DART mission was able to successfully and substantially alter the speed and trajectory of Dimorphos.
As Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, points out, the main scientific work now will be conducted from Earth. "Now the work of the astronomers begins," he tweeted. "Every 11 hours, Dimorphos goes behind Didymos as seen from Earth. By measuring that time of disappearance, we can accurately measure the orbital period of Dimorphos and see if it has changed due to the impact."
ATLAS observations of the DART spacecraft impact at Didymos! https://t.co/26IKwB9VSo— ATLAS Project (@fallingstarIfA) ) September 27, 2022
Many ground-based observatories trained on the Didymos asteroid system have already shared images of the impact. Astronomers from the Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System (ATLAS) project, funded by NASA, have already compiled a timelapse (shown in the video above) that highlights the dust emissions from the impact as seen from Earth.
Many more images are sure to be released in the coming days as astronomers observe and measure Dimorphos' orbital period — the time it takes to orbit Didymos. Stay posted for more updates on NASA's DART mission and Italy's first deep-space mission, LICIACube.
Professor Gretchen Benedix is an astrogeologist and cosmic mineralogist who studies meteorites and figures the forming stages of the solar system.